Whey protein supplements are amongst the most common supplements sold but unfortunately a lot of people don’t know its importance and how to effectively use it. Milk has two major protein components, casein and whey; during cheese manufacturing the fatty part of milk is coagulated and whey liquid is released as a byproduct. Before the advent of whey supplement industry this whey liquid was discarded as waste and now it is seldom more valuable than the cheese itself!
How is whey supplement made?
The process is pretty straightforward really but I have listed the main steps to help you get a better picture:
Collection of milk
Transportation: the collected milk is transported to processing plants under refrigerated condition.
Pasteurization: The collected milk is heated to about 73°C and rapidly cooled back to 4°C. This causes a temperature shock in the milk which kills the pathogenic bacteria without altering milk’s taste and other properties.
Curdling: Separation of milk solids and whey liquid is achieved by use of certain enzymes like chymosin. The fat rich solids are further processed into different types of cheese.
Micro – filtration: The liquid whey contains other macronutrients like carbohydrates (in form of lactose), some fat and water which are to be removed to accumulate a protein ‘concentrate’ which is achieved by passing the liquid through a series of micro-filters.
Drying: the resulting high protein whey liquid is then dried using cold and hot air in a method called spray drying. This is a very crucial step to ensure quality of the whey powder.
Blending: the powder is then blended with flavours, digestive enzymes (protease) and stabilizers to create the final product.
Packaging: The whey protein powder is filled in tubs or bags and is sealed.
Types of whey supplements:
There are three major types of whey supplements available in the market and the basic difference is in their level of filtration and resulting protein percentage in the final product.
Whey concentrate: this most commonly used form and has 70-80% protein along with other components of the milk such as lactose, fats and nutrients.
Whey isolate: most of the carbs, fats and nutrients are filtered which bumps up the protein concentration to 90%.
Whey hydrolysate: also known as hydrolyzed whey. It is predigested to enhance absorption in the gut.
Pros of whey supplements:
Whey protein supplements are used mostly by athletes and those who pursue an active lifestyle. Although a lot of vegetarians also opt for these supplements to make up for low amounts of protein in their diet. A lot of different conventional baked goods such as cookies, chocolate bars, brownies etc. have been supplemented with whey in recent times which make it easier for consumers to enhance their protein intake. Benefits of whey protein are:
Muscle growth: whey protein is a good source of all 9 amino acids including branched chained amino acids (BCAAs) one of which is leucine which has been shown to play a major role in muscle synthesis. Additionally, whey supplement helps in release of anabolic hormones like insulin.
Weightloss: protein in general has a great satiating effect (learn more here) and can help the amount of calories you consume while on the other hand promoting muscle growth which will in-turn help you burn more calories. Additionally, protein digestion also burns more calories when compared to other macro-nutrients.
Muscle preservation: high protein diets have shown to be helpful in preventing loss of muscle mass especially when you go on a calorie deficient diet for fatloss.
Improving blood pressure and lipid profile: some studies have found promising evidences on the positive effects of whey protein consumption on reducing LDL cholesterol. Additionally, whey supplements contain lactokinins, a type of ACE- inhibitors which help in lowering blood pressure, although the evidence for this is inconclusive.
Managing type II diabetes: Whey protein consumption has been linked to increased production of insulin as well as improvement in its sensitivity. The beneficial effects of whey protein can be compared to some diabetic drugs like sulfonylurea when it comes to lowering blood sugar levels.
Inflammation: consuming whey protein has shown to help reduce inflammation in the body.
Boosting antioxidants: our bodies produce an antioxidant called glutathione for which the amino acid cysteine is an important prerequisite. Whey protein is rich in cysteine and many studies have found a direct correlation between whey consumption and increased antioxidants in the body.
Risks of whey protein supplements:
There are two major risk factors involved with whey protein supplements. First being digestive problems, having too much supplement or if your are lactose intolerant, can lead to issues like diarrhea, flatulence, cramps, nausea etc. or elicit a specific allergic reaction in individuals allergic to whey. Secondly, being a dietary supplement the FDA is lenient on the claims and purity of these products and organizations like Clean Label Project have found some well known brands to contain high levels of heavy metals which a cause of serious concern and prolonged consumption can lead to lethal health complications.
Whey protein is ‘unnatural’ and it is a steroid: as explained above, whey is pretty natural and is a byproduct of cheese industry, which is just essentially filtered and dried into a powder. Steroid are compounds which promote aberrant muscle growth in the body, while whey intake may help you fulfill your amino acid requirements, it does not directly cause muscle growth.
Consumption of protein supplements will harm kidneys, liver and bones: till now, no study has found any link that consumption of whey or any other protein supplement will cause adverse effect on these organs. The scenario is different for those who have pre-existing kidney and liver issues and for them reducing protein consumption from all dietary sources may be advised. As for bones, evidence on the contrary suggest that high protein intake actually protects against osteoporosis.
More protein = more muscles: a lot of newbies at the gym think that to grow big muscles they need to chug a big shaker of whey supplement. Although higher than normal protein intake is essential for muscle growth and athletic performance, the physical stress you put your body under is what really determines muscle growth.
Expensive the supplement, better the results: As you now know, whey protein is a pretty uncomplicated supplement but the price difference amongst them can be twice as much. Usually local brands are cheaper than international ones but this may not necessarily mean that the later are always better.
Timing is everything: though there are multiple studies which suggest that having a protein supplement within a 60 minute ‘anabolic window’ is important to build muscles, meta studies show that as long as you have adequate protein in your diet then timings won’t make a huge difference.
Things to consider while buying whey supplements:
Here are a few things I check while I buy my whey supplements.
Goals: while it is true that whey protein isolates have higher concentration of protein as compared to whey concentrates but it is also true that they are more expensive. A lot of beginners who want to buy ‘the best’ put their money on isolates while forgetting that it is a recurring cost and not a onetime investment. If you are just starting out in the gym or you are a club level athlete then whey concentrates are perfectly fine but if you are a professional body builder or a fitness model who needs to keep their body fat percentage below 5% then you might have to go for whey isolates to help keep those calories in check.
Amount of protein: this is the basic ‘return on investment’ aspect while buying which determines if the supplement is bang for the buck. On the label, see how many grams of protein is in one scoop and divide that by how much a scoop weighs to calculate the percentage of protein per scoop. Also see how many servings are there in a package, comparing these two with other options can help you determine the best deal.
Brand integrity: certain supplement brands may utilize the loophole to escape statutory bodies but there are a couple of third party labs such as Labdoor and the Clean Label Project which test these products for their authenticity and accuracy of their claims.
Checking for adulteration: after buying the product, it is advisable to check for adulteration starting with the integrity of seal on the package and sticker or importer’s license. Next is the mixability of powder, if the powder doesn't mix well with water or forms lumps after 30 seconds of shaking then it can be adulterated. Lastly taste, if the supplement tastes like chemicals or oils then it might be a fake.
The takeaway box:
Whey protein contains all nine amino acids and thus is a great source of high quality protein plus it has other health benefits too. Adding a supplement to your diet can be a great way to complete your protein requirements especially is you are an athlete or vegetarian but remember, a supplement can never replace a meal. You must aim to consume most of your protein from whole foods and there are numerous athletes who do not rely on supplements to achieve theirs. Although whey protein supplements are usually safe, consuming them in recommended limits will help you avoid gastro-intestinal problems and abate the risk of heavy metal poisoning. There is a risk of hairloss linked with higher consumption of whey supplement, the current evidence points to added creatine and BCAAs as culprits but whey in itself is just a protein rich compound. It is also important to note that genetic and other environmental factors also play a major role in hair health but if you are facing the issue of receding hairline then try avoiding or changing your supplement. All protein supplements have a risk of adulteration and expensive supplements have a greater chance of counterfeiting while the cheaper ones may use low quality ingredients to keep the cost low, therefore it is always a good idea to do your due diligence which choosing a brand and I personally recommend buying the supplement directly from the brand’s website. The most important point to note is that if your allover dietary lifestyle is unhealthy then obsessing about the brand, timing and dosage of your supplement is not going to make a huge difference, you must first fix your diet and lifestyle to extract most benefits out of your supplements. If you want to learn more on why protein is important in your diet and how you can increase your intake in a healthy way then do check this article out. Guys, if you want me to help you with deciding which protein supplement is best for you do even need along with calculating your daily protein needs then feel free to get in touch!
References and further reading:
Arnarson, A., 2017. 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits Of Whey Protein. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-health-benefits-of-whey-protein> [Accessed 25 December 2020].
Baer DJ, Stote KS, Paul DR, Harris GK, Rumpler WV, Clevidence BA. Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults. J Nutr. 2011;141(8):1489-1494. doi:10.3945/jn.111.139840
Clark, L., 2017. Gym Warning: Drinking THIS After Your Workout Could Make Your Hair Fall Out. [online] Express.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/802759/gym-whey-powder-protein-shake-workout-drink> [Accessed 25 December 2020].
Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2008;5:8. Published 2008 Mar 27. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8
Frid AH, Nilsson M, Holst JJ, Björck IM. Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1):69-75. doi:10.1093/ajcn.82.1.69
Harvard Health. 2018. The Hidden Dangers Of Protein Powders - Harvard Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders> [Accessed 24 December 2020].
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Shapiro, L., 2010. Whey Protein Isolate Damages And Accelerates Hair Loss. [online] News-Medical.net. Available at: <https://www.news-medical.net/news/20100408/Whey-Protein-Isolate-damages-and-accelerates-hair-loss.aspx> [Accessed 24 December 2020].
Zavorsky GS, Kubow S, Grey V, Riverin V, Lands LC. An open-label dose-response study of lymphocyte glutathione levels in healthy men and women receiving pressurized whey protein isolate supplements. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007;58(6):429-436. doi:10.1080/09637480701253581
Zhou LM, Xu JY, Rao CP, Han S, Wan Z, Qin LQ. Effect of whey supplementation on circulating C-reactive protein: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrients. 2015;7(2):1131-1143. Published 2015 Feb 9. doi:10.3390/nu7021131